Google’s Selfish Ledger is an unsettling vision of Silicon Valley social engineering

Google’s Selfish Ledger is an unsettling vision of Silicon Valley social engineering, by Vlad Savov.

Google has built a multibillion-dollar business out of knowing everything about its users. Now, a video produced within Google and obtained by The Verge offers a stunningly ambitious and unsettling look at how some at the company envision using that information in the future.

The video was made in late 2016 by Nick Foster, the head of design at X (formerly Google X), and a co-founder of the Near Future Laboratory. The video, shared internally within Google, imagines a future of total data collection, where Google helps nudge users into alignment with their goals, custom-prints personalized devices to collect more data, and even guides the behavior of entire populations to solve global problems like poverty and disease. …

Google prompts users to select a life goal and then guides them toward it in every interaction they have with their phone. The examples, which would “reflect Google’s values as an organization,” include urging you to try a more environmentally friendly option when hailing an Uber or directing you to buy locally grown produce from Safeway.

Of course, the concept is premised on Google having access to a huge amount of user data and decisions. Privacy concerns or potential negative externalities are never mentioned in the video. …

The ledger actively [seeks] to fill gaps in its knowledge, … even selecting data-harvesting products to buy that it thinks may appeal to the user. The example given in the video is a bathroom scale because the ledger doesn’t yet know how much its user weighs. …

Foster’s vision of the ledger goes beyond a tool for self-improvement. The system would be able to “plug gaps in its knowledge and refine its model of human behavior” — not just your particular behavior or mine, but that of the entire human species. … “As cycles of collection and comparison extend,” concludes Foster, “it may be possible to develop a species-level understanding of complex issues such as depression, health, and poverty.”

Creeping closer to building a God that knows what you think and guides you through life. Hope it’s not an angry God, and that it really has my best interests at heart. Ha.